Media vow to fight back

Zimbabwean journalists plan to defy proposed legislation that will severely curtail independent reporting in the run-up to presidential elections in March.

After a meeting of journalists on Thursday, Abel Mutsakani, head of the Independent Journalists Association of Zimbabwe told IRIN: "We agreed we are all mobilising for total defiance. No journalist is going to be registered under the new laws, we are not going to abide by them. If we are arrested, so be it."

The government's Access to Information and Privacy Bill, part of a package of draconian legislation the ruling party intends to force through parliament by Friday, allows only journalists accredited by a government-appointed Media and Information Commission to work in the country. Registration must be renewed annually.

The media bill makes it an offence punishable by up to two years in prison to reproduce comments published, for example in the state media, without permission. It would also be deemed an offence if a journalist "spreads rumours, falsehoods or causes alarm and despondency".

Click here to see full details of the bill

Reporters Sans Frontières (RSF) has condemned the state of media freedom in Zimbabwe. "The human rights and press freedom situation in Zimbabwe is catastrophic," it said in a statement this week. "The president and the government in Harare are harassing both local and foreign journalists with impunity. There are continuous threats and arrests, and the independent press is finding it more and more difficult to play its role of informing public opinion."

Mutsakani said journalists would wait until the bill was enacted and would then seek to have it overturned as unconstitutional by the Supreme Court. However, "even if the courts rule in our favour the government has already demonstrated it will not accept any court ruling [that outlaws its actions]."

He acknowledged that resistance to the bill could result in the closure of independent newspapers in the run-up to the March election, silencing opposition to Mugabe.

But, according to Mutsakani, perhaps only if journalists are jailed, and civil society mobilises in protest, would regional governments be forced to acknowledge Zimbabwe's political crisis is about democracy rather than land - and act to ensure free and fair elections.

"We want to make it impossible for people like [South African President Thabo] Mbeki to have any more excuses. We want to make it difficult for especially SADC [Southern African Development Community] to skirt the real issues. Locking up journalists will have nothing to do with land," he said. "Mugabe's only concern is to make sure he is re-elected."